Much like your resume, your cover letter offers a chance to grab an employer's attention.
Stacey Lane, a Portland-based career coach, puts it this way: "I think recruiters hiring, particularly at small companies where there's somebody physically looking at resumes and cover letters, see cover letters as a way to distinguish yourself.
"After you've read 200 resumes, they all start to look the same," she says.
That's exactly where your cover letter comes into play.
Explaining the layoff
"I wouldn't spend much time explaining the layoff, unless it provides context or it's going to be the first question they ask," Lane says.
If you do decide to explain the layoff in your cover letter, keep it short and sweet, taking up no more than a couple of sentences. You want to show off your qualifications and accomplishments in your cover letter, not remind potential employers that you are out of work.
Betty McWillie, a career counselor with more than 25 years of experience, says she works with clients to get their layoff explanations down to two sentences, no matter how complicated the circumstances may have been.
"You would just say I have been recently laid off from my position in, say, public accounting, and I'm now pursuing jobs in X, where my skills of X, Y and Z are more ideally matched."
Marilyn Feldstein, a career coach who started Career Choices Unlimited, agrees that a cover letter is a fine place to mention your layoff. "Assuming you didn't abscond the funds, that is it has nothing to do with you, then feel free to explain the circumstances of your layoff," she says.
"Always end on a positive note," she adds. "People will love that. People are hiring not just for technical skills and interpersonal skills, but how are you going to fit in. When people are talking about fit, they're talking about attitude."
Getting an employer's attention
Lane offers three words (or one word, three times) for those looking to highlight their career accomplishments in a cover letter: "Relevant, relevant, relevant."
"That's where you have to do your homework to really understand what's going to speak to that organization," Lane says. "You have to know what their pain points are."
Pain points are an employer's trouble areas. They offer an opportunity to empathize with a company.
Figuring out an employer's pain points requires a lot of research, Lane says. You have to talk to someone inside the business or have experience working in the industry. While sometimes difficult to ascertain, if you figure out a problem that you can solve for the company, you'll certainly stand out from the competition. Additionally, you'll want to have a plan for soothing those pain points.
Susan Grosoff-Feinblatt, a counselor who started Career Transitions, says, "Typically your second or third paragraph is going to speak to some specific accomplishments that are going to be related to what your employer is looking for.
"It might be something that you fixed for the company or something that you grew," Feinblatt says. "Every company has pain that they're trying to fix and gain that they're trying to grow. Now, if your examples are too generic, it's probably not going to make any difference."
Every word counts
Anecdotes work great for addressing an employer's pain points. Other types of anecdotes should be avoided. Don't begin your cover letter by telling your life story. You'll lose the reader quickly.
"You want it to be short and sweet," Stacey Lane says. "You want it to be punchy. You want it to grab their attention. It shouldn't be written like, 'I was born on a farm in Mississippi.' Nobody cares."
Much like using anecdotes, you should be careful in how you present your personality. Otherwise, it could backfire on you. Lane says cutesy humor, in particular, may not work. "You have to be careful because people can be totally turned to ice," she says. "I've read cover letters that feel like a stand-up routine.
"You have no control over who's reading your cover letter. They may not have the same sense of humor as you or may not even be in the mood to have a little bit of humor."
Just as bad, Lane says, is a cover letter that feels stilted or templatized.
"There's nothing worse than reading a cover letter that you know is a form letter, and it says really nothing about your organization," she says. "It just feels like a treatment rather than a really specific, pointed cover letter."
To avoid coming off like a robot "make it conversational in tone," Lane says.
"Every word counts."
Creating a cover letter that shows your unique perspective while staying relevant to the company's needs and keeping your copy sharp and engaging is a challenge.
If you want a helping hand, try using LiveCareer's online cover letter builder. Using it will help you craft a cover letter perfect for your career path in a matter of minutes, including key phrases employers will be looking for, without sounding like a pre-written template.